Photo: Courtesy of Korina Emmerich
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Tucked away along the right wall of the Anna Wintour costume center is a simple ensemble: a skirt and coat, made of thick, creamy wool, lined with bright stripes of yellow, red, green and black. The piece – one of more than 100 objects in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibit “In America: A Fashion Lexicon” – is modest, almost unpretentious next to the row of prom dresses nearby. It is also the only element of the spectacle created by an Aboriginal person.
Korina Emmerich, the Puyallup and Nisqually designer behind the garment, did not know until she attended the show that she would be her sole representative of Indigenous fashion. And she didn’t quite understand why she had been chosen. Perhaps this is because one of her dresses was recently worn by Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous member of the U.S. Cabinet, on the cover of In the style, or maybe it had something to do with the popularity of its Split Shot face mask, which has been in high demand throughout the pandemic.
But she still didn’t understand, why her, and only her? “I’m half white and urban – I didn’t grow up on the reserve. I know I’m nicer in situations like this, ”she says from her Flatbush apartment, which also serves as a workshop for Emme Studios, the clothing and accessories brand she founded in 2015. “But there are people who have been sewing much longer than me, celebrated elders in our community,” she says, citing Orlando Dugi, Jamie Okuma and Patricia Michaels as just a handful of many.
Photo: Courtesy of Korina Emmerich / EMME Studios
She also had questions about the piece chosen by the Met for the show. The garment itself is a form of protest, inspired by the Hudson’s Bay Company and its most popular product, the dot blanket. The Emmerich article features wool blankets from Pendleton, a company based in its home state of Oregon that popularized the Hudson Bay print in the United States; the Pendleton version has almost identical colourways, using a black stripe instead of a navy. The original blankets, offered or exchanged with the indigenous peoples, are said to have spread the deadly smallpox among them.
This is only part of the long and terrible history between the indigenous peoples of North America and the Hudson’s Bay Company. In addition to exploiting Indigenous labor, the company played a fundamental role in the colonization of the continent by claiming Indigenous lands for the British Crown and American settlers. It’s a legacy Emmerich knows well – his ancestor, Anawiscum McDonald, a member of the Swampy Cree tribe, worked as a middleman between European traders and tribes in the late 1820s, carrying fur, marinated fish and other goods by canoe.
“It’s a symbol of colonialism,” Emmerich said, pointing to a strip of fabric with the print next to us. “The Hudson’s Bay Company print is a symbol of genocide and colonialism for Indigenous peoples.
All of Emme Studios’ materials are here in the room with us – it serves as both a living room and a workshop, a small but bright space where Emmerich works with his only part-time employee. All of her products are made here, to order by hand. It’s a huge amount of work, she says, and although she is committed to sustainability and slow fashion, she often worries about her business model in a labor-intensive industry and cheap materials. “My relationship with being a clothing designer is difficult,” Emmerich admits, “and I always wonder what the point of creating more stuff to put in the world is.”
Emmerich lost his job as a bartender at the start of the pandemic and describes a year spent “floating, creating to survive”. It was a tough time, and so it was no small feat when she heard about the Met – having one of her creations in the museum meant a kind of visibility she had never had access to. previously. “But when I found out I was the only one, my immediate reaction wasn’t excitement,” she says. “I called my sister – I was devastated.”
From the beginning, part of the point of “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” was inclusiveness. Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute, “isn’t just trying to change the stereotype of American fashion or counter predictions of its demise,” the New York wrote. Times in April, when the exhibition was announced. “He tries to broaden our understanding of what this means by telling stories of designers who have often been overlooked and forgotten.” In comments to the press at the show’s previews last week, Bolton reaffirmed this message, explaining that one of the show’s goals was “to express the heterogeneity of American fashion.”
But the Costume Institute’s curatorial staff remain entirely white, and Bolton was not specific about the vetting process when asked how the exhibit’s “diverse range of designers” was selected, telling Cut that “we have chosen objects that celebrate the originality and creativity of emerging designers working in the United States.
The museum’s label under Emmerich’s ensemble in the exhibit cites his sustainability practices, as well as the item’s symbolism. The latter is something Emmerich insisted on including when the Costume Institute requested the piece’s loan in July – none of his family’s history with the Hudson’s Bay Company has been publicly noted, and the Institute researchers did not explain why they were interested in this particular piece. .
She asked the Met to include an artist statement explaining everything, and was taken aback when the conservation team asked for bullet points instead. “It was kind of like an afterthought,” she recalls, “and also like, How to incorporate an Indigenous designer without making a big statement? “
When asked why the Costume Institute chose this particular piece of Emmerich, Bolton told The Cut that it “features the design of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s iconic spiked blanket, an object that has come to symbolize the colonialism of indigenous peoples, ”adding that“ Korina used the cover to stimulate dialogue about indigenous stories, including her own. But Emmerich isn’t convinced the Tories knew about the cover’s lineage until she explained it to them.
“I feel like I’m not being celebrated for myself – it’s almost like they’ve pulled a piece where I fit into their narrative,” Emmerich adds. Adding to his unease is the fact that his design sits right next to another ensemble that evokes the Hudson’s Bay print, but without the reclaimed aspect inherent in Emmerich’s. When the Costume Institute shared it on Instagram last month (caption: “This Andre Walker’s cape will represent the qualities of warmth and comfort”), it was immediately criticized.
“A symbol of genocide and colonialism, no warmth and coziness,” one comment read. Others simply called it “smallpox coverage”.
It is possible that indigenous designers – both established and emerging – will be added throughout the year: According to a press release, the exhibit “will evolve organically with rotations and additions to reflect the vitality and diversity of American fashion.” They could also be included in the second part of the exhibition, a historical investigation that will open in May 2022.
But as it stands, Emmerich is troubled to know that her piece, with its painful history, stands alone alongside those of designers like Ralph Lauren and Donna Karen, labels who have used Indigenous imagery in their ads. and indigenous designs and motifs in their work.
“To steal something that was illegal for us and profit from it – it’s a disgusting exploitation of our culture,” Emmerich says. The law that granted indigenous peoples freedom of religion was not enacted until 1978, “but these companies are like, Oh, no harm, no fault, “she said.” There was so much wrong and you have to admit it. I always say, this genocide thing doesn’t make a pretty sweater now. “